How to Hot Smoke Fish (Pictures, Techniques & Temperature)

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Writer / Enthusiast / Meat Curer / Forager / Harvester | About Tom

For decades, immersed in studying, working, learning, and teaching in the craft of meat curing, now sharing his passion with you through eat cured meat online resource.

There are vital points when hot smoking fish, with a few techniques and temperatures you can use. Hopefully, I can share some of my successes over the years.

KEY Steps

How to Hot Smoke Fish:

  1. Acquire fillet or Whole Fish
  2. Cure or Brine Fish
  3. Form the Pellicle
  4. Smoke Fish in Hot Smoker

Key Points

  • Acquire sustainable fish options, considering local sources and the benefits of oily versus white-fleshed fish.
  • Cure or brine fish using dry or wet methods, adjusting salt and sugar ratios based on fish size and desired flavor.
  • Forming a pellicle by air-drying fish on a non-reactive rack or shallow dish allows airflow for optimal smoking.
  • Smoke fish in a hot smoker, maintaining temperatures between 160-190°F (70-90°C) for ideal results.
  • Serve hot smoked fish with creamy accompaniments in pasta dishes, dips, patties, pate, quiche, or kedgeree for a delightful culinary experience.

    We will also talk about the different equipment for hot smoking you can use.

    To say I love smoked fish is a super understatement. More often than not, I catch and hot smoke.

    I also buy hot-smoke salmon and plenty of other fish species. I searched far and wide and couldn’t find a decent guide for all the various fish hot-smoke, so I thought about sharing.

    Over a few decades of hot smoking experiments, reading many books, and eating heaps of fish. Here is the overview of how I hot smoke fish.

    Hot Smoked Oily Fish Delicious
    Hot Smoked – Fish Delicious (Portable Smoker 15 Mins, 5% Brine for 4 hours)

    How to Hot Smoke Fish

    Smokey flavors work so well with many varieties of fish. And, of course, once you get the hang of it, it’s way better than anything bought in a shop.

    Equipment shouldn’t be a hassle; tin foil and a wok/pot can work. I’ll go over all the different slow and fast smoking options.

    I want to help you try, so I will highlight different techniques you can use.

    hot smoked salmon
    Whole Hot Smoked Fillet of Salmon, four different salt brine levels – more on this later

    I am using a small setup or a large one.

    When I did start investing in smokers, for me, it was about getting consistent results and being low maintenance. I’ll go over all these techniques for you.

    1. Acquire Fillet or Whole Fish

    Fish or other seafood crustaceans.

    Knowing your fish is sustainable is necessary, of course. Our choices decide the future of fish populations. Local, of course, helps our planet, too.

    Oily Fish

    • Salmon
    • Tuna
    • Sardines
    • Sea bass
    • Mackerel

    White Flesh Fish

    • Orange roughy
    • Gurnard
    • Flounder
    • Snapper
    • Halibut
    • Pollack
    • Trout

    When choosing fish (or catching it), oily fish retain more moisture and considerably take up smoke flavor. They don’t overcook as easily as white delicate fish.

    Both will turn out awesome; do it!

    If you get this fish with the skin on, it will hold the flesh together better when smoking and cooking. Oily fish are healthier in terms of the richness of OMEGA 3 & 6.

    Oily fish also take on wood smoke very well.

    2. Cure or Brine Fish

    Basic Dry Curing Recipe

    • 2:1 ratio salt / natural raw sugar – so for every 5 grams of salt, I will use 2.5 grams of sugar
    • (add herbs/spices if you want)

    You want enough cure to dust over all sides. It depends on the size of the fish portion/fillet or whole fish. I find 1-2% salt for the total weight of the fish to be just suitable for hot smoking (it’s about flavor/light curing, not complete curing).

    For example, fish fillet 9 oz/ 250g – 1.5% salt = 3 grams (just over half a teaspoon). 1.5 grams of raw sugar.

    I use accurate scales a lot, especially for dry curing meat, I highly recommend this since salt granules have different shapes/sizes, One teaspoon of Morton salt is entirely different from one teaspoon of kosher salt – or various other types/sizes/brands.

    For an idea of recommended accurate scales (life-changers for many cooks around here – exceptionally accurate meat curing), here is a page of a few decent ones I put together.

    Using finer salt (sea salt) will mean faster penetration. Most people seem to prefer coarser salt, though. Coarser salt, like kosher salt, is a good choice if you are overnight curing. Below are some examples of how much I sprinkle.

    Some people like to wrap the fish in cling film, plastic wrap, or glad wrap. I prefer not to use single-use plastic, so I use a shallow dish or plate. Depending on the moisture content, this may draw out moisture in the fish, so you want something to catch the liquid.

    I prefer not to use more than the 2:1 salt/sugar, and often, I don’t use any sugar at all with trout and subtle fish.

    Basic Wet Brine Recipe

    Easy Ratio 5% Salt Weight to Water Weight

    50 grams/1.8 oz sea salt/kosher salt  to 4 cups of water (1 Litre)


    15 grams/1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water – approx

    You only need to submerge the fish, so you don’t need gallons or liters unless you do a big batch of fish.

    You might need to place a clean weight on top, like a plate or something, to hold the fish under the salt brine water.

    Length of Time in the Brine

    As a rough guide, most fillets of 1/2 inch or 13mm thickness can take as little as 30-60 minutes in the brine. I will generally leave them for 3-4 hours.

    Here is some more helpful information as a guide:

    FishThickness/SizeCuring Time
    Trout Fillet1/2 inch (13mm)30 minutes to 4 hours
    Salmon Fillet2 inches thick4 hours minimum, Overnight
    Kippers/SardinesSmaller fish fillet10 minutes to 1 hour

    Rinse with water thoroughly and then on to form a pellicle.

    As you can see above, leaving it in brine longer is not a big issue. However, overnight is generally long enough for thick fish (definitely not more than two days).

    Fish is less dense than other meats, so I will always brine for a shorter time.

    Optional: (Add fresh herbs, bay leaf, peppercorns, white wine, or dried herbs to suit).

    Note—It’s harder to form a pellicle from a frozen fish, so it’s harder for the smoke flavor to impart its vapor (it is not the smoke; it’s the vapor from the smoking that has the taste).

    The weight/volume of salt can vary, but this will give you a good guide based on the 5% ratio. You may want to experiment with stronger brines if you often consume more amounts of smoked fish.

    You may want to consider a salt tester, which floats to show how accurate your salinity level is. You should only look at these if you are doing huge batches of fish.

    You can soak the meat in fresh water after brining to reverse the saltiness if you overdo it in the brine. A trick I use for Gravlax salmon or brining bacon (doing a little fry test to check it)

    3. Form the Pellicle

    Pellicle on Fish
    Pellicle Formed on Fish

    Put fish on a non-reactive rack or /wooden skewers for airflow. Stick it in the fridge or a ventilated area. Another option is inside your cool-protected smoker if it has some airflow and it’s moderately cool outside, say under 50°F/10°C.

    If it’s a whole fish hanging, it can work well. Some basic techniques are needed so the head doesn’t fall off when hung.

    To get a dry, tacky protein formation on the meat, it just needs a little time in a cool area & airflow around it.

    Some people use wooden skewers on a shallow dish to create air circulation around the meat.

    4. Smoke Fish in Hot Smoker

    Temperature & How Long to Hot Smoke for

    The lower the temperature, the better, while cooking the fish for every method. If you can get smoke and run direct-heat smokers at 160-190°F/ 70-90°C, this would be ideal. It’s done once the fish flakes and is cooked through; a picture of flaking is below.

    How Long to Hot Smoke Fish?

    The key to success is ensuring the fish is cooked; you test how easily it flakes off the fillet (pull a fork through it and see if it’s flaking or raw).

    A digital thermometer is helpful; it’s cooked at 150°F/63°C (commercial smokers would want the internal temp to remain at this level for 30 mins personally if it’s cooked – it’s done for me)

    Hot Smoking Tip: When the salmon is done, it may ooze some white stuff. This is albumin, just protein—nothing to be concerned about (you are highly likely to see this with Salmon). When the protein is very cold from the fridge, the heat contrast extrudes it.

    Doesn’t change flavor.

    In short, there are two main methods to hot smoke

    Fast higher temperature or slower low temperature.

    Fast Direct Hot Smoking (Wok or Portable Smoker)

    If the fillets are thin or a small fish, it can take 6-8 minutes.

    For thicker fillets of salmon, hake, or monkfish – this could take 15 minutes.

    Making sure the temperature is low after the smoking starts is essential.

    Indirect Smoking (or Low & Slow)

    It depends on thickness.

    Light Smoking200°-240F / 95-115°CUnder 1 Hour
    Medium Smoking170-190°F / 70 – 90°C 1-2 Hours
    Intense Smoking150-160°F / 65 – 70°C2-5 Hours

    A thermostat-controlled smoker (electric or gas) will be the way to get the most success here if you want that convenience factor (set & forget). More on this below.

    If you want a decent gadget to make the whole smoking fish project easier, here is a page that reviews the pros and cons of a few digital thermometers I can recommend.

    Hot Smoking Fish Smokers

    Direct Heat a fast higher temperature method:

    • Wok/Pot smoking -indoor smoking option
    • Portable Smoker – needs an outdoor heat source

    Indirect Heat slower low-temperature methods like ‘Low & Slow’:

    • Electric/Propane/Gas Smoker
    • Pellet Grill Smoker
    • Kettle, Drum, or Offset Smoker
    • Pellet Tube Smoker/Maze Smoker

    For the direct heat methods above, I would put the fish in the smoker while it heats up to capture more smoke flavor.

    For indirect heat below, I would wait until the smoke/heat has reached approximately 200°F/100°C – then add the fish for smoking.

    Now, I will go over the different hot smokers for fish.

    Direct Heat Hot Smoking

    Tea Smoked Wok/Pot Stove Top

    You can have some real fine with this traditional Chinese style. The tea smoke has an entirely different flavor from wood smoke, and the addition of sugar also gives it a caramel and aromatic spice flavor.

    • Essential Equipment –  pot, lid, aluminum foil & tea/wood
    • This can make the kitchen very smokey! Depends on the mixture
    • Recipes & techniques on Tea Wok Smoking over here
    Portable Smoker

    I want to open the portable smoker like the one below to allow more airflow. Too much smoke can cause the fish to have a bitter taste.

    Half a handful of smoking wood (pellets, chips, sawdust) is enough.

    Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke
    My Portable Smoker – thin smoke, having a peek!
    Hot Smoked Fish
    Fish that Flakes and is Done – Hot Smoked Fish from Portable Direct Heat Smoker – Favorable Result

    It is an excellent device for fast, hot smoking; I use a portable smoker a lot! It’s simple to set up for a quick smoking session.

    My mum’s portable smoker, fillet of salmon

    For many friends who want to try smoking, this is what I suggest: not much of an investment either.

    It is used on an outdoor heating device, such as a spirit burner, gas cooker, gas grill, or heating element.

    This is an easy and fast way to add smoke flavor to your fish. It can be limiting if you want to hot smoke a big fish, but I have sometimes just cut up the fillets to fit inside the smoker.

    This method tends to be quite direct heat, so keeping an eye on it is crucial. But it’s OK for under 20 minutes of smoking—e.g., trout, salmon, or 1/2-inch fillets.

    • Use it for camping, fishing, or fast, hot-smoking sessions.
    • Portable smoker favorites of mine: sausage (straight in, chorizos), fish fillets, whole fish & pork chops
    • Not for indoor use, too much smoke – porch or backyard is perfect

    The design needs to be well sealed to get some good, intense smoke; for more info on these portable smokers, I wrote more details here.

    Indirect Heat Hot Smoking

    For all these indirect-heat hot smokers, maintain 170-190°F/70-90°C, then use a fork to test when the fish starts to flake.

    Electric/Propane/Gas Smoker

    This type of smoker, which has a consistent temperature once set, is straightforward. The same is true for pellet grill smokers (pellet grill smokers are more of an investment).

    You can’t go wrong with one of these if you want the dedicated smoker since it is a genuine set & forget option.

    However, electric smokers are the best option for cost, convenience, and ease of use. You use a temperature-controlled thermostat to smoke fish, and the cured fish goes in with a pellicle formed. Here’s a write-up with some electric smoker suggestions.

    It’s the same idea as the electric one but with propane/gas as the fuel type.

    Remember, hot smoking is cooking/baking the fish, with some smoke happening at the same time. So it’s all about having a go, and if you love smoked goods -maybe investing in some gear is necessary.

    Pellet Grill Smoker

    Indirect heat, low temperature – basically like an outdoor oven heated with wood pellets that flavor the food.

    Electricity is needed for the auger that pushes and controls the pellets that are burning/smoking.

    Kettle, Drum, or Offset Smokers

    Airflow management is the key to any of these types of charcoal for wood smokers. They all have air in and air out. This airflow controls the burning and, therefore, the heat. It can take some tweaking.

    Many smokers are out there, but I want to focus on the easiest to use and one of my favorites, the kettle grill. I talk about how easy it is a bit in this post about… easy to use smokers!

    I use the ‘snake method,’ which involves placing the heat on one side and the fish on the other.

    Kettle Smoker Snake Method
    My Kettle Smoker Snake Method, get one end going, then just let it burn around the ‘snake’!

    Then, the fish can look like this after 2-3 hours.

    hot smoked salmon
    Charcoal kettle hot smoked salmon (cut it up to try different salt brine levels)
    Pellet Tube Smoker/Maze Smoker

    It can be added to a gas grill, so you have a burner on one side for indirect heat and a pellet tube smoker under the hood for the smoke.

    It’s a great gadget to add to a gas or kettle grill (here are some other excellent tools I wrote about in detail). It creates either hot or cold smoking.

    • Pellet tube smoke can also boost charcoal smokers
    • Woodchips or wood pellets can be used effectively.

    For more info on pellet tubes, I wrote about my favorites here and why.

    For Recommended Gear,

    • Portable Smokers (for direct smokers for gas grill or any outdoor heat source – fish fillets, sausages, red meat, chicken, etc., whatever you can fit in it)
    • Tube & Pellet Tube Smokers (add to a gas grill, charcoal, electric, or you can easily use them for some cold smoking action)
    • Easy Electric Smoker (thermostat controlled smoker (an oven with smoke basically – smoke anything in one of these, versatile and reasonable price which can be used for so much…turkey, ribs or salmon – indirect smoked low and slow)
    Because a pellicle was formed, the color of smoke brown/orange can be seen on this finished flaking fish.

    Quick Smoker for Gas Grill Tip Wood Chips Foil Wrapped

    Wrap a handful or two of wood with tinfoil/aluminum foil and poke some holes like this.

    You then want to place it directly above a burner. I’m not too fond of this method when you use a hooded gas grill since burning tin foil, or aluminum foil isn’t perfect for flavor.

    Other Helpful Information – Hot Smoking Fish

    Choose Smoking Wood

    Sawdust, wood chips, wood chunks — there are so many options. Note that sawdust will burn fast; I tend to soak it for 20 minutes. Soaking doesn’t make the wood smoke longer; it just delays combustion. The real benefit is adding moisture to the heat/smoke environment.

    Recommended Smoking Woods

    Type of WoodSuitability for SmokingAdditional Notes
    Hardwoods (Deciduous Trees) – Ideal for Smoking MeatYesOpt for fruit or nut wood for smoking fish. These deciduous hardwoods don’t have resin and provide a pleasant flavor to the meat. Common choices include apple, cherry, pecan, and hickory.
    Non-Treated WoodHighly RecommendedWhen making your own smoking wood, ensure it is non-treated to avoid any chemicals embedded in the wood. If purchasing, choose from reputable stores that stock untreated smoking wood.

    There are lots of opinions about what is best about wood. I like to keep it simple, so I wrote an easy guide if you want to check out the post – here it is.

    Wood Plank/Board for Hot Smoked Fish

    Smoke on a wooden plank! Buy it, find it, or make it – it’s a novelty to smoke a fish on a plank. It’s a subtle smoke unless you’re adding another smoking box to the mix, but it does make an excellent presentation for friends and family.

    Soaking the plank for 30-60 mins, and you’re good to go. If the plank is slightly larger than the fish, the smoke around the edges will flavor the fish (very subtle).

    Big planks don’t flavor with smoke much due to the distance it creates from the burning and smoking to the fish. A giant board can make an eye-catching serving board, though.

    You are using a wood, charcoal, or propane grill for this.

    Plank cooking woods I have used (basically any smoking wood):

    • cedar
    • alder
    • maple
    • hickory
    • pecan
    • oak
    • cherry
    • apple

    Intensifying the Smoke Flavor

    I eat smoked fish immediately, on its own or in a recipe. Also, if you put it in the fridge for a day or overnight, it tends to taste smokier (in a container, or else the fridge will smell pretty smoky).

    Serving Hot Smoked Fish

    Works very well with something creamy, like cream cheese or avocado.

    Many pasta options can be delicious.

    Make a hot smoked fish dip! Superb sharing food.

    Here are some other suggestions:

    • Make a pate, something creamy like cream cheese and some zest
    • With eggs or with eggs benedict
    • Make some smoked fish patties
    • In a quiche is a great idea
    • If you haven’t tried kedgeree, give that a go (smoked fish eggs, curry, rice, and spice)

    Related Questions

    Can I Smoke Fish in an Oven?

    This can be done but may damage the oven; it creates a lot of smoke in the kitchen. Smoke alarms can be set off by using this method. As an alternative – tea smoked wok/pot style on the stovetop will lead to better outcomes.

    Check it out here, tea smoked fish in a wok/pot 

    How Long Will Hot Smoked Fish Last?

    One week in the fridge. Vacuum-packed, it will last up to three weeks. If it is not refrigerated, hot smoked fish is the same as cooked meat and will not last unless kept in a cool area. If it has been salt-cured or brined, it can last a few more days than non-hot smoked(my rtrout smoking article here) fish.

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    1. Just purchased a second hand charcoal kettle smoker and I found your post very helpful. Just about to give it ago with a bit more confidence than I did before I read this, many thanks

    2. I smoked some tuna, as a dry run for Father’s Day 2021 ( Please excuse the pun ) with your suggestions and step-by-step advice it turned out great . Planning to have the kids over next Sunday I know the smoked fish will be a big hit it will be a great addition to the table. Many thanks Cliff

      1. Author

        Hey Cliff, thanks for the comment – sounds like you nailed it! Nice! Tom

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